By Dr. Kent Millard
In March, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started a voting rights demonstration in Selma, Alabama to change U.S. laws so that African American citizens could register and vote.
Dr. King asked pastors, priests, rabbis, nuns, and lay people from all over the nation to come to Selma to march for voting rights.
Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister in Boston, responded to Dr. King’s invitation. Rev. Reeb went into a Selma café, and, when he came out, he was hit over the head with a club by segregationists and died from brain injuries.
“We would be doing what another minister from Boston had been killed for doing the previous week.”
Dr. King called Boston University School of Theology and asked seminary students to come to Selma and join him in this struggle for voting rights.
I was one such seminary student and joined my fellow students on a trip to Selma to participate in the marches.
I was well aware of the risk, since we would be doing what another minister from Boston had been killed for doing the previous week.
For me it was a question of faith. I thought “how can I ever ask lay people to take a risk for their faith, if I can’t do it myself?”
“My experience in Selma taught me to take risks for my faith, and that God can change hearts through the power of prayer”
I went to Selma, was trained in non-violent resistance, and marched from a Baptist Church to the Selma courthouse amid the hatred and shouts of segregationists.
At the courthouse, a Black pastor prayed for all the people who were shouting ugly words at us that God would change their hearts of hate to hearts of love.
Forty years later in 2005, I spoke to a United Methodist ministers’ retreat in Alabama. I shared my Selma experience with them, and afterwards a pastor came up and told me that he was also in Selma in March, 1965, but he was one of those shouting hateful words at the marchers.
I asked him, “What changed you?” He explained that he went to a church service where he knelt in prayer, confessed his sin of hatred, and God came into his life and changed his heart. Then he decided to become a United Methodist minister to try to build bridges of love rather than walls of hatred. I thought about how the prayer of the Black pastor 40 years earlier had been answered: a heart of hate had been changed to a heart of love.
My experience in Selma taught me to take risks for my faith, and that God can change hearts through the power of prayer.
Dr. Kent Millard served as Senior Pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis for 18 years and retired in 2011. Dr. Millard is President of the Indianapolis Interfaith Hunger Initiative, member of Downtown Rotary, serves on the Gleaners board and is a co-author of Lead Like Butler.